Today I have a great start to the week for you: an interview with Laura Fox, general manager of Citi Bike at Lyft. Citi Bike, for those who don’t know, is the New York City bike-share program and the largest bike-share scheme in the U.S. Lyft took over Citi Bike and several other large urban bike-share programs in 2018 when it acquired the previous operator, Motivate, for a reported $250 million.
Laura and I covered everything from the history of North American bike-share to the stations the most bikes drain from when people go out to drink in New York. This newsletter/podcast also contains a **pro tip** for Citi Bike riders that I’m trusting you, the readers of Oversharing, not to exploit and to use in good faith. As Laura says, “Be a bike angel, not a bike devil.”
Interviews with smart people like Laura who are experts in their field are available exclusively to paid Oversharing subscribers. If that’s you, thanks for supporting this newsletter! If not, consider upgrading your subscription! You can listen to the audio or read the transcript, which has been condensed, edited, and embellished with links for context and clarity.
Oversharing: A lot of people might not know that Lyft owns Citi Bike because it was around for plenty of time before Lyft bought it. Could you tell people a bit about how that handover happened?
Fox: I think it could be helpful to start even before Lyft comes into the picture, a little bit of the history of bike-share in North America, which is interesting just from, how do you scale transportation systems, from an M&A perspective, and also cements why cities and private operators have been core partners in this kind of endeavor from the beginning.
So parts of the North America story start in 2009 in Montreal, actually with their parking authority, the MPA. And they decided that they wanted to bring bike-share to Montreal and to model it off of the Vélib’ system in Paris. And they called the program Bixi and then hired a local operator called 8D to do the software side of the work, who’d been kind of providing software for their parking operations and things like that. This combination of the city deciding to do this work, bringing in a software operator, and then the city doing the hardware side became some of the foundation for some of the programs that we have in North American and that have scaled globally. And the hardware side of the business ended up getting spun out a little bit later and was called the Public Bike System Company or PBSC.
When you say hardware side, we’re talking bikes right?
Bikes and stations also. When we fast forward a couple years to New York City and the launch of Citi Bike, Citi Bike was founded at the urging of New York City DOT. So again, public sector playing a major role in imagining a new transportation system being brought to New York City. The commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, after a visit to London, rode Boris Bikes—obviously now Santander—and was like, this is an incredible system, we need it for New York. And so came back to New York City, set up an RFP, found a private operator, and was even instrumental to thinking through the early sponsorship agreements to get the system off the ground.
At the time, the original operators for Citi Bike also contracted with PBSC to bring this station-based bike-share network to New York City. And oftentimes when we talk about Citi Bike, I think the thing that surprises a lot of people when you look at anything that’s really successful today is that there were struggles in the beginning, and there was certainly a lot of bumps in the road when you think about the launch of Citi Bike. Citi Bike was meant to be launched in 2012 and had all of the bikes and stations stored along the Brooklyn waterfront. And then Hurricane Sandy came in and flooded all of the equipment.
Yeah, big yikes. So, you know, needed to both repurchase all of that capital equipment, have to do a bunch of rework to then come back and launch in the spring of 2013. And then there were some early launch problems in the first year or so. And so the original operator was bought out and restructured into what became Motivate. Headquarters were moved to New York City. They began partnering with 8D, the original software provider to Bixi, to really think about bringing together this hardware-software stack to make bike-sharing a really reliable, great product within the city.
Motivate, for people who don’t know, was a major bike-share operator in North America that ran a lot of the biggest city—not Citi Bike, as in New York—but city bike-share programs.
Yeah. That includes Boston, DC, New York, Chicago, Columbus, Minneapolis, San Francisco. And then Lyft announced in summer 2018, the intention to acquire Motivate, and then because of that became basically the country’s largest micromobility player, in a lot of ways, overnight. At the time of the acquisition, I think all of those systems made up about 80% of the U.S. market. So Lyft also then took over some of these long term public-private partnerships that Motivate had built up over time and that are integral to the scaling of large-scale micromobility systems across the U.S.
So this became part of the group within Lyft that we now today called the transit, bikes, and scooters group. The first piece of work for that was really integrating all of these biking options and other options into the Lyft app. And one of the things that I find to be most striking is since the time of that integration, which was mid-2019 until today, we’ve had 2.5 million formerly ride-share only riders try out a bike and scooter for the first time, build habit, and become regular riders.